Friday, June 27, 2014

World War next

For some years now we have been told that war is a thing of the past.

Statistics have been deployed to measure the reduction in war deaths, papers written about the shifting shape of conflict, and whilst the world is still a messy place, we have been assured that the old Cold War threat of clashing powers leading to world war and nuclear annihilation were behind us.

But that is not the case. In this, the 100th anniversary of the start of the war to end all wars, we could be once again on a slippery-slope towards what looks like old-fashioned world war.

Like the situation a century ago, it all seems to be about the redrawing of maps and reordering of states. And just as then, when people imagined that local trouble would stay that way, the potential for a larger conflagration is being largely ignored. Sleepwalkers, as the writer Christopher Clark described European nations in 1914.

The major powers today it seems are just as oblivious to the risks of wider conflict growing out of the Middle East. The sudden dissolution of the old boundaries drawn by great powers a century ago is allowing once localized insurgencies to acquire the capacity to occupy territory and threaten the integrity of established states.

Thus the Sunni insurgents of western Iraq are connected to the sprawling civil war in Syria, with all its fanatical and communal hues, which in turn has allowed the Kurds to carve out with alacrity their proto-state. This risks opening a path for new age Persian adventurism, bringing the counter-threat of Israel’s use of nuclear weapons one step closer to reality.

Western aversion to intervention in this throw-back to the geopolitics of antiquity will be tested. Diversion, at least, leaves East Asia in a state of unmoderated rivalry and tension. China's abandonment of its peaceful rise, manifested through a bold assertion of its wide-reaching territorial claims in the South China Sea, is generating tension with Japan, which as a result may soon shed the constitutional constraints on its armed forces in place since the end of World War II. At the same time, a more reactionary majority government in India is aiming to tweak the dragon's tail in the Himalayas.

Rising temperatures in the Middle East and East Asia severely limit the capacity of the US and Europe to address Russian expansionism in Central Asia. There is almost nothing stopping Russia's slow annexation of East Ukraine, which will inevitably embolden Vladimir Putin to roll out his grand design for a greater Russia.

All of this inevitably means there will be no respite for the untamed tribal marches of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both conflict-ridden countries will continue to provide a crucible for forging battle hardened militants who will make their way of into the ranks of the New Islamic armies pillaging and murdering their way across the old crusader battle fields of greater Syria and Iraq. It’s no surprise then that the number of refugees globally has now exceeded 50 million people, the first time the figure has been higher than the immediate aftermath of World War Two.

This grim tapestry of conflict signals a revival of great power rivalry and interstate conflict that existing multilateral bodies like the United Nations are profoundly ill-equipped to manage. Allowing the war in Syria to escalate and spillover into Iraq because of intractable differences between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the US amounts to a failure of diplomacy which collective action by the UN Security Council is powerless to fix.

The shots fired by a Serbian nationalist on a sunny street in Sarajevo in 1914 led to the first Great War in the absence of an effective collective will to manage conflict. The European powers grappled with the random impact of fanatical acts of anarchy by groups such as The Black Hand in the first decade of the 20th century just as they do with today's Islamic extremists in the first decade of the 21st. Only today's Al Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are more threatening; they can weaken states and draw larger powers into conflict.

Ideally, the world needs an inspiring vision and the leadership to implement it. The aftermath of both world wars saw this happen. Versailles and Yalta were forged by necessity. But after almost 70 years of relative peace, the vital sinews needed to power collective action have atrophied.

The world has become a fractured place, seemingly brought closer by trade and technology, but in reality atomized and therefore powerless when it comes to addressing critical global challenges like the environment or issues as pressing as sexual slavery.

That is why the optimistic statistics of conflict are misleading. Killing may not be on the same scale as it was during the previous century, but the world may be poised for something approaching the same catastrophic level of disruption unless we bury our selfish pre- occupations and begin to really act together.

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia Director of the Geneva-based Center for Humanitarian Dialogue and former editor and veteran correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review.


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